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You Had Me at the Title

[1]

People often ask me what I’m reading and sometimes I forget. What’s the name of that book again? But then some book titles stick to my brain like a gecko clinging to a wall. They take root inside me and often the book itself proves to be just as unforgettable.

In brainstorming the title for my own debut novel, I turned to experts who advised that authors should keep titles short for a variety of reasons: Something short will be easier for people to remember. Fewer words will fit more neatly on the book jacket and not require a small, unreadable font. But like most advice, it depends.

My favorite title these days consists of eight words. You read that right. Eight. Yet it sounds cool as hell when I say it aloud: Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick. Zora Neale Hurston’s story collection centers on love and migration. The rhythm and flow of that title hits my ear just right. Genevieve West, who wrote the book’s introduction, says there are many ways to understand the title, one being that it refers to the ability of black people to endure and overcome challenges, or as the old folks say “make a way out of no-way.”

Then there are the one-word wonders that pack a world of meaning in an astonishing economy of letters. I devoured Heavy, the memoir by Kiese Laymon. In one small word, he interrogates so many aspects of a heavy life: blackness, body weight, secrets and lies, America’s sins, and the many ways we hurt others and ourselves. In her runaway bestseller Becoming, Michelle Obama uses the title of her memoir to explore how our personal growth has no finite destination; instead, we’re always learning and evolving. The title sparked a mini-movement, too. Using the hashtag #IamBecoming, readers took to Twitter to share their personal journeys of becoming.

The scope and breadth of a book title can intimidate us as the authors of the work. How expansive can it be? Am I being audacious in my choice of a title? When I studied novel writing with Tayari Jones at Tin House, she discussed the difficulty she had in choosing the title of her latest novel. In an offhand remark to her editor, she suggested An American Marriage but quickly dismissed the idea because it sounded like a book about navel-gazing white people in Connecticut, not a novel about a black couple grappling with the fallout of wrongful incarceration. It was her mentor, Pearl Cleage, who reminded her that black people are indeed American and that the prison system responsible for upending her protagonist’s life is a uniquely American institution.

Some of the best book titles turn popular sayings on their head and imbue them with new, unexpected meaning. You’ve likely heard the expression “you never forget your first” referring usually to that first love we can’t shake whether the relationship was good or bad. Well, imagine my surprise and subsequent delight scanning a list of most-anticipated books when I spotted this one: You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington by Alexis Coe. I sat there thinking George Washington as in the Founding Father, the first U.S. President? The one and only. Typically, I don’t read political or historical biographies but I’m drawn to this one because of the provocative title that promises a fresh, fun look at American history.

Another creative book title that made me smile came from Rion Amilcar Scott’s inventive story collection The World Doesn’t Require You. I haven’t asked Rion about the origin of the title he chose but I imagine some wise elder telling me to check myself, to not get it twisted thinking I should be at the center of everything. In an interview, Rion addressed the title saying, “It’s important to realize that each of us is a blade of grass, not the lawn itself.”

My late father often spoke of the wisdom of the old heads in our family and that was my go-to memory when I first laid eyes on Heads of the Colored People, the brilliant short story collection by Nafissa Thompson-Spires. I remember eating pizza with a group of white writers when I mentioned I was reading this book. They stared blankly from wide eyes, probably stunned by the reference to colored people in the title. The author has said she was inspired by the literary sketches of the same name by 19th century physician and abolitionist Dr. James McCune Smith. This book does indeed take us inside the heads of black people we don’t often meet on the page such as the mothers of elite private school students, college professors, YouTubers, and cosplayers.

Some authors cleverly use metaphors in their titles. One of my favorites is Liz Moore’s Long Bright River. Yes, Philadelphia, the setting for the book, is a city of iconic rivers. However, the author compares the veins of opioid addicts to rivers. Why is the river long? I came up with my own interpretation. For me, it connects to the seemingly never-ending list that opens the novel. It’s a list of dozens of names of people in this long line of devastation from the drug epidemic. I imagine all of their veins end-to-end in this winding river of pain that courses through many families and communities every day.

I picked the title of my debut novel years ago long before any thoughts of marketability. For me, The Kindest Lie reflects the many ways we keep secrets and hide from the truth for what we believe are all the right reasons. The characters in my book can justify every lie they’ve told to loved ones and even themselves because the greater good always required it. In my march toward publication, no one has suggested changing the title, so maybe it’s a sticky one after all. Now when I meet booksellers and tell them about my debut, they usually nod appreciatively and remark, Ah, good title. When my readers are asked someday about that book they read, I hope they’ll remember the title.

Which book titles caught your attention right away and why? Do some titles make you think deeply about their meaning? How did you select the title for your own book?

About Nancy Johnson [2]

Nancy Johnson [3] writes at the intersection of race and class. Her debut novel, THE KINDEST LIE, is forthcoming in 2021 from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins. This is the story of an unlikely connection between a black woman searching for the son she never knew and a poor, 11-year-old white boy who finds himself adrift in a dying Indiana factory town. THE KINDEST LIE was named runner-up for the 2018 James Jones First Novel Fellowship Award. Nancy’s work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine and has received support from the Hurston/Wright Foundation, Tin House Summer Novel Workshop, and Kimbilio Fiction. As a television journalist, Nancy received Emmy nominations and multiple writing and reporting awards from the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. When Nancy’s not writing, you can often find her exploring bookstores, festivals, and restaurants in her hometown of Chicago. Nancy is represented by Danielle Bukowski at Sterling Lord Literistic.

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